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DETROIT – On Monday, Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores announced that Stan Van Gundy, who served as both head coach and president of basketball operations, will no longer be with the team.
The most interesting — or worrisome, if you are a Pistons fan — word in that sentence is “Monday.” Detroit’s season officially ended April 11 and the Pistons were eliminated from playoff contention a week before that.
Van Gundy had been in charge for four years, and if Gores wanted to keep him he could make such an argument and do just that. It would be a poor argument, but still.
If he wanted to fire him, though, what the heck was there to debate that would require five weeks of contemplation and discussion? Why wait around while other teams moved aggressively and snapped up the best coaches and general managers on the market?
Instead, like just about everything else Gores has done since buying the franchise in 2011, this looked like an afterthought, something that finally reached the top of the to-do list of the billionaire venture capitalist who hails from Flint, Michigan, but lives in Los Angeles and is rarely seen in these parts.
Oh, right, the Pistons …
“We have decided that this change is necessary to take our basketball organization to the next level,” Gores said in a statement. “This was a very difficult decision and we did not come to it lightly.”
Van Gundy is a good coach, but it didn’t work out. This really wasn’t that difficult of a decision. He went 152-176 (.463) across four years. The roster is a mess, actual attendance was weak and the future is mortgaged. Even if it was somehow a difficult decision, it didn’t need to take this long. The subject of whether SVG would return hung over the entire season. At least among the fans who attend and watch the actual games.
This says as much about how the Pistons got in this predicament in the first place. This is a franchise that not only won three NBA titles under the local ownership of Bill Davidson, who sat courtside for nearly every home game, but advanced to at least the Eastern Conference finals every season from 2002-08. The Pistons have made just one playoff appearance under Gores, getting swept in 2016.
Success is cyclical in the NBA, especially outside of the most storied franchises or places that appeal naturally to free agents. No one is suggesting Detroit needs to contend for a title every year. But it has been decades since it has been this irrelevant.
A team once known for its loyal and rabid fan base (in the case of the Malice in the Palace, a bit too rabid) is now known for having so many empty seats this year it needed to make a deal with a local furniture store to cover them in a less-notable black. Of course, the Pistons moved to Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit only after Gores delayed and delayed the decision, making them more than an afterthought inside the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings-owned facility.
That’s Gores, though. He’s never around. He’s never accountable. He almost never seems to be paying attention.
Van Gundy left the franchise in a lurch, in part because of a string of terrible personnel decisions that grew more desperate as time went on – almost like he was trying to hoodwink ownership into the illusion of progress.
There were the draft busts, of course – Stanley Johnson over Devin Booker in 2015 and Henry Ellenson over just about anyone in 2016. Neither player is worth much. That led to 2017, when Duke shooting guard Luke Kennard was taken over Donovan Mitchell (whom the Pistons really liked) on the basis that Kennard would offer the outside-shooting help Detroit needed. That’s a move you make when your team is on the verge of something big, a skill-specific plug-and-play, not one for a team that’s constantly rebuilding.
When the Pistons struggled this year, Van Gundy sent away Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris and the team’s 2018 first-round pick (top-four protected) for Blake Griffin and a massive contract that runs through 2022. The deal made no sense. Not then. Not now.
It was a high-risk/possibly mediocre-and-temporary-reward move that seemed designed to wow Gores and buy Van Gundy another year. Maybe it almost worked in fooling Gores. It didn’t on the court. Griffin is still a good player (for now), but pairing him with 7-foot center Andre Drummond runs completely against the league trend of smaller, more versatile wing players.
In the last 18 games of the season with Griffin, Drummond had single-digit shot attempts eight times. Is that what you want out of a max-contract player?
Griffin is already an albatross. Gores hailed the trade for Griffin as the Pistons finally getting a “star,” but “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” won’t get you any points, and the only real way franchises like Detroit get good is via the draft.
Van Gundy’s four drafts (2014-17) will yield little more than Kennard (who, in fairness, can shoot, but doesn’t project to do a lot more than that). And, of course, no first-rounder in 2018, barring the unlikely occurrence that Detroit lands in the top four in the draft lottery May 15. That’s a five-year desert.
All of this was evident, though, by late February, if not far sooner. Whatever miracle it would have taken for Griffin to revitalize the franchise faded after an initial four-game winning streak. The most pro-Van Gundy spin was left lamenting an injury to point guard Reggie Jackson. If the franchise hinges on that …
If Gores was on top of this he wouldn’t have allowed the Griffin deal to go through and would have dumped Van Gundy in the middle of another lost season or made it clear he was done at the end.
Instead, Gores bought the smoke-and-mirror show and got so confused or distracted he didn’t get around to realizing the team is a mess until nearly a month after the season, with new coaches and front-office execs already scooped up.
“Over the past two seasons our team has not progressed,” Gores said in the statement.
This is true. That the owner just figured it out doesn’t speak to the likelihood much will improve with the next hire.
The Pistons are in the market for a new president and a new coach. A new owner that cares might help the most.
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